Best of Blends: Red, White & Tidal Bay - Medal Winners from the 2017 Nationals

Announcing the 2017 Results from the National Wine Awards of Canada

Due to the record number of top quality Canadian wines entered this year, we have decided to break the announcement of the results into more manageable pieces. Each day for the next two weeks we will be announcing a few categories at a time, with the highly-anticipated Platinum Awards to be announced on July 26th, the Best Performing Small Winery on July 27th, and finally the Winery of the Year, along with a list of the nation’s Top 25 Wineries, on July 28th. 

We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today we present Red Blends, White Blends & Tidal Bay with a few words from John Szabo, MS and Craig Pinhey:

Red Blends

By John Szabo MS

As with the blended white category, British Columbia overwhelmingly dominates the top Canadian red blends. Only two of the 19 gold winners this year (and one platinum) are from Ontario (and these are made from partially-dried grapes in the appassimento style). One explanation is that warmer climates like BC’s are better suited to red blends, where different components are used to achieve balance and complexity – think of Mediterranean wine regions, for example, where blending is the rule. Even the majority of premium new world regions rarely produce pure varietal wines – most Napa cabernets, for example, are not pure, but contain a percentage of other varieties to help balance and round them out.

Cooler climates like Ontario’s on the other hand, are generally skewed towards single variety bottlings (think of northern Europe, or Central Otago or Patagonia). Here premium reds are made from varieties that can go it alone; pinot noir, cabernet franc, gamay, and to some extent syrah indeed shine best alone at their marginal edge of viability. There’s also the reality that the current vintages in commerce, mostly 2013s and 2014s, were particularly cool in Ontario and not suited to big reds. The top ‘15s from Ontario have yet to be released.

As with white blends, red blends are often proprietary cuvées with fantasy names. But in stark contrast, they are mostly positioned at the pinnacle of a producer’s portfolio: ambitious wines given lavish attention in vineyard and winery, with little expense spared and prices to match. Low yields and expensive precision viticulture are in fact a sine qua non for quality red wine in Canada. Variations on the cabernet-merlot theme are by far the most popular, though some signature assemblages including non-Bordeaux varieties like syrah have made their own niche. The judges were by-and-large pleased this year with the more restrained use of oak, a trend we’ve been observing for several years, and the effort to produce wines of greater finesse and elegance, less heavily extracted and better balanced for it. There is, however, still some work to be done to match varieties to the right sites.

Red Blends

White Blends

By John Szabo MS

White blends are often your introduction to a winery. Unlike the more premium red blend category, white blends remain, for the most part, positioned at the entry price point of a winery’s range. They’re generally branded with proprietary names, unoaked, and made from aromatic varieties, and often with a vague impression of sweetness, aimed at the early, easy-drinking end of the market. There are, of course, exceptions, but what you’re seeking here is value for money rather than sublime experience, as you’ll see nicely represented in this list of well-made, fresh and fun medal winners.

Similar to the red blend category, British Columbia dominates the medals. (Tidal Bay, a Nova Scotia appellation for aromatic white blends, is given its own category – see below.) The principal reason I see for this is the significant acreage still given over in BC to reliable-yielding, heavily aromatic crossings with exotic names like ehrenfelser, ortega, and schönburger, legacy of large-scale planting trials in the Okangan undertaken in the late 1970s by Dr. Helmut Becker of the Geisenheim Institute in Germany where these vinifera varieties were bred for cooler climates. These grapes are tailor-made for just this type of wine. BC’s slightly warmer and drier climate (relative to Ontario), especially in the central-southern Okanagan, make these a sure bet every year.

By contrast, Ontario’s most important hybrid, vidal, is mostly reserved for Icewine, or cheap and cheerful table wines that don’t aspire to medals. Aromatic vinifera grapes like gewürztraminer, viognier, riesling and pinot gris are more expensive to grow and are thus often reserved for varietal bottlings at higher price points. But the few top-end blended examples made from these anywhere in the county are worth seeking out.

White Blends

Tidal Bay

by Craig Pinhey

What is Tidal Bay, you might ask? Many people think it is a brand when they hear of it and/or taste it for the first time. It’s not. It’s an appellation, in the same way that Chateuneuf du Pape, Chianti Classico or Vinho Verde are appellations.

This means it has very specific rules about where it can come from (wineries that are members of Wines of Nova Scotia only, at the moment), what grapes can be used and in what proportion (there must be a minimum percentage of base grapes like Chardonnay or Acadie Blanc, and aromatic varieties like New York Muscat are capped to avoid overtly floral wines), and the minimum acid and maximum sugar levels, amongst other things.  It also means that wines must be submitted to an experienced tasting panel to ensure that they meet the requirements for Tidal Bay.

Those of us on the tasting panel look for several things. The intention of Tidal Bay, as laid out by the team that developed the appellation, was to produce a white blend that was indicative of our cool climate terroir, with fresh acidity and perfect for pairing with local seafood.  This means the wine should not be perceived as too sweet or too tart. It should not have too much floral character, but it should not be thin and flavourless, either. It must be balanced, but fresh and food friendly.

A typical Tidal Bay wine exhibits citrus, green apple, white flowers and wet stone minerality. The body is medium and the acid is fresh, with enough residual sugar to balance. It should definitely finish with enough acidity to cleanse the palate after an oyster, mussels, scallops, haddock, or lobster.

Now that the appellation has been in place for several years, the wineries and the tasting panel are pretty much in sync, and the resulting wines reflect the intention of the appellation. They are all similar, but there are individual differences owing to the base grapes used, the percentage of aromatic varieties, and the differing winemaking styles. That’s as it should be.

When you taste the medal winning Tidal Bay wines from 2016, they won’t all taste the same, but there should be a commonality, just as there would be for Napa Cabernet, or Spanish Rioja, or white Burgundy from France. To wear Tidal Bay on the label, these wines must evoke the feeling of sitting on a beach or restaurant patio by the shore, drinking wine while enjoying fresh seafood or just enjoying a delicious drink while observing the tidal ebb and flow.

That’s the Tidal Bay appellation, in a seashell.

Summary of the results of the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada.

Zwilling Predicat Crystal Stemware